What were the true causes of World War 1? - By Nathan Wilson
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
The causes of World War 1 are a highly debated topic within world politics and international relations. Amongst this debate, many evaluate the causes of the war as either the fault of a specific country or through the structural factors that existed within European nations.
This essay will argue that the main cause for WW1 was due to the underlying structural factors that permeated from a distinct culture. Namely, the ‘cult of the offensive’ that existed within nations. The main argument for this viewpoint is put forward in The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War (Van Evera, 1984). This existed within two main sections. Firstly, the growth of the cult of the offensive within European Military Structures and the collective rise of offensive realism. Secondly, the consequences which this ‘cult’ produced in 1914 which increased the likelihood of war .
The "cult of the offensive" is defined by Van Evera as the phenomenon that “militaries glorified the offensive and adopted offensive military doctrines” (Van Evera, 1984). What he means by this is that this idea/worldview in the realm of warfare is built upon the idea that striking first while building up a nation’s arsenal is the best method of success. This was a structural problem that existed within continental nations - that Europeans, as quoted by German Chancellor Hollweg in 1912, “increasingly believed that attackers would hold the advantage on the battlefield, and that wars would be short and decisive” (Farrar, 1972). Thus highlighting how the underlying culture existed, which in turn led to WW1. This is in direct contrast to the argument that an individual nation was directly responsible, having largely overlooked “the lessons of the American Civil War, Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the Boer War” (Luvaas, 1959) during the period 1892-1913.
The existence of this cultural structure of offensive realism is shown within the German Empire. Evidence to support this argument exists within the Schlieffen Plan. General Alfred von Schlieffen (author of the 1914 German war plan of which he is the namesake) had explained that “attack is the best defense” (Van Evera, 1984). Alongside this, German Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke had endorsed the principle that “the offensive is the only way of insuring victory” (Geiss, 1967) if Germany were to go to war.
The values provided show the basis for the formulation of the Schlieffen Plan. Drawn up “between 1897 and 1905”, the plan “outlined a strategy for Germany to avoid fighting at its eastern and western fronts simultaneously” (Onion, 2018), envisaging the decisive attacks on Belgium, France and Russia. (Onion, 2018). What this presents is the physical embodiment of the cult of the offensive taking place within Germany.
Alongside this, we see a similar culture emerging within fellow European nations. An example of this spreading "cult of the offensive" is witnessed in the French Third Republic. The French Armed Forces were “obsessed with the virtues of the offensive” (Van Evera, 1984). Indeed, the Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre stated that France “no longer knows any other law than the offensive” and that “any other conception ought to be rejected as contrary to the very nature of war” (Ellis, 1975). This supports the view that the key military figures within major European nations had fallen for this cultural idea of offensive realism. The argument for this is backed by the military doctrines that had been adopted, which, according to General Foch, was “a single formula for success, a single combat doctrine, namely, the decisive power of offensive action” (Challener, 1955). In other words, this underlines another major European power succumbing to such behaviour. Overall, this supports the view that European nations had developed a culture amongst themselves - that offensive military power was vital their national security. This was not simply one nation, acting aggressively.
In a similar fashion, Van Evera argues that this form of structural realism had spread towards Britain and Russia. Evidence to suggest this argues Britain rejected defensive strategies despite their usefulness throughout the Boer Wars. Indeed, in both 1913 and 1914, General Knox wrote that “the defensive is never an acceptable role to the Briton” (Van Evera, 1984). This suggests that the upper echelons of military power had absorbed this overarching narrative of offensive realism.
The same can be said for the Russian Empire. The Russian Minister of War General Sukhomlinov statED in 1909 that their enemies were directing their forces in such a way that guaranteed “the possibility of dealing rapid and decisive blows", to combat this "we must follow this example” (Lieven, 1983). It becomes clearer that these beliefs led to the expansion of the "cult of the offensive" which engulfed the European powers on the eve of WW1.
However, it can be additionally argued that WW1 was caused by the actions of individual nations. Germany’s Weltpolitik and Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia are both prime examples. What these two cases show is that individual nations pushing towards policies led towards increased chances of conflict . This is especially relevant to the heightened tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, which ultimately resulted in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914.
In conclusion, what this suggests is two clear arguments which describe the causes of WW1. Firstly, that these were not due to the actions of an individual nation, but rather a collective culture that had developed within the military structures of each nation. Secondly, the cult of the offensive unintentionally magnified its influence on a wide range of secondary dangers which helped pull the world into war. This is because it allowed nations to adopt more aggressive policies, “both to exploit new opportunities and to avert new dangers which appear when the offense is strong” (Van Evera, 1984). With both key conclusions in place, it resulted in a state of affairs where European nations had prepared for war against themselves by acting on aggressive policies that fundamentally aimed to exploit the weaknesses of each nation. It was therefore inevitable for a multi-faceted conflict to emerge between the great powers.
Nathan Wilson is a student of philosophy and politics at the University of Stirling, specialising in International Politics and Political Violence within the Asia-Pacific region. He previously studied abroad at Lingnan University in Hong Kong
Van Evera, S., 1984. The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War. International Security, [online] 9 (1), pp. 58-107. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2538636 [Accessed 7 April 2020].
Farrar, L., 1972. The Short War Illusion: The Syndrome of German Strategy, August-December 1914. Militaergeschictliche Mitteilungen, 2, p.40.
Luvaas, J., 1959. The Military Legacy Of The Civil War: The European Inheritance. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Geiss, I., 1967. July 1914: The Outbreak Of The First World War: Selected Documents. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, p.357.
Onion, A., 2018. Was Germany Doomed In World War I By The Schlieffen Plan?. [online] HISTORY. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/was-germany-doomed-in-world-war-i-by-the-schlieffen-plan [Accessed 7 April 2020].
Ellis, J., 1975. The Social History Of The Machine Gun. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon, pp.53-54.
Challener, R., 1955. The French Theory Of The Nation In Arms, 1866-1939. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University, p.81.
Lieven, D., 1983. Russia And The Origins Of The First World War. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, p.113.